I’m going to be controversial and say it. James Bond, 007, is a lightweight, or at least not the drinker he is popularly thought to be. The sense of Bond’s relationship with alcohol, as given in the books, is very different from the popular perception
My deduction comes from his interaction with alcohol in the novels. On first meeting with Felix Leiter, he announces that he never has more than one drink when concentrating. In fact, when the two of them reconnoitre Harlem in Live and Let Die, he does have a number of drinks, but never more than one at each bar, and he drinks them slowly over the time they are there; here his orders are for cover, not pleasure, and he’s careful in his consumption to ensure it doesn’t prevent him from carrying out his duty.
He does likes to drink, and it plays a part in his life, but he never appears to be craving it permanently or unduly, as one might expect of a near alcoholic. Furthermore, it is important to remember the context of the times in which the Bond novels are set: in the 1950s and 1960s the long liquid lunch was not uncommon. In this context his drinking activities seem less extreme. He drinks no more than Felix Leiter when the pair of them are together, and Felix is just as knowledgeable, if not more so, on the subject of alcoholic beverages, especially cocktails.
There are two further facts which add to the idea that he is not as heavy a drinker as he might first appear. First, the alcohol content of wine and some other drinks was far less than it is today; Bond can drink a larger quantity before he feels their effects than would be the case if the books were set now. We get a sense that most of the booze Bond drinks is not particularly strong when he has a martini made with American gin in Live and Let Die. This gin is of a much higher proof than Bond is used to, hence it tastes “harsh” to him and he makes a mental note to be carful about how much he has.
Secondly, there is the precision with which Bond orders his drinks to be prepared. On many occasions ice is involved. This no doubt is principally because he prefers his drinks cold. Indeed, while ordering the Vesper in Casino Royale, he tells Felix Leiter that he likes his drinks “very cold”. This is supported by that most famous of lines, “shaken not stirred”, for shaking will chill the martini quicker than stirring.
The practice of shaking also causes the ice to chip and fracture, melting more quickly than if the drink were stirred, and watering down the alcohol. As such, while a cocktail such as the Vesper, consisting of three measures of gin, one of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet, may appear to be strong, its strength is reduced by shaking over ice until very cold. Even when not having his drink mixed, Bond often asks for it to be served with ice, notably with his bourbon in the airport at the start of Goldfinger. Again, this will cool the drink, water it down as it melts, and make it last longer.
Bond’s habits and personal tastes regarding drink really flesh out the character and at times are amusing. His addition of pepper to vodka (grain-based being his preferred form) as a result of his time in Russia is a particular example, as is the way he enjoys his gin and tonics with the juice and the squeezed out remaining flesh of a whole lime. He prefers coffee over tea, telling the MI6 canteen girls at the offices off Regents Park, “I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire”. It appears that the term “a cup of mud” even seeps through the MI6 offices. And of course, in the books, the vodka martini, with which he is so closely associated, comes along later, following on from gin martinis and before that the Vesper, a drink of his own invention, and recently made famous after Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007, Casino Royale. It’s also clear that Bond is more of a liquor man than a wine buff; he more regularly drinks spirits and is often guided on what specific wine or champagne to drink, in both cases being not as knowledgeable as suggested in the films.
However, the most interesting point around the alcohol Bond consumes is not how and when, or its variety. As with the food in the books, at its simplest the choice of alcoholic drinks adds glamour to the stories, with their constant use of highly expensive and rare champagnes and premier clarets, along with local drinks such as Chianti and sake. At the time of their first publication, cocktails and wines were drinks that were seen as the preserve of the rich and glamorous; they were not the daily tipple of the everyday man or woman, who drank beer and fortified wines such as sherry.
I could provide the recipe for the Vesper to finish off this article, but we all know it and the ingredients are listed just above (some consider Cocchi Americano to be a better replacement for the discontinued Kina Lillet than its true successor, Lillet Blanc), so I thought I’d give you the recipe for a drink I had not heard of before reading the novels: a Black Velvet. Bond and Bill Tanner, the MI6 Chief of Staff, drink Black Velvets at Scott’s in London (a restaurant Fleming knew well from his youth) to accompany their meal when, in Diamonds are Forever, Bond takes his friend there specifically to try the dressed crab.
The Black Velvet
- ½ pint of Guinness
- ½ pint of champagne
Fill a pint glass with the ½ pint of Guinness and then very gently pour in the champagne so as to result in two distinct layers of colour. If you pour the champagne too quickly and disturb the Guinness too much you will not achieve this. It is easiest to produce the required effect by pouring in the champagne over the back of a spoon.
Photo: Alan Levine